Did Pope Francis poke Protestants in the eye?

Did Pope Francis intentionally poke Protestants in the eye?
Did Pope Francis intentionally poke Protestants in the eye? (photo: Register Files)

In a recent column, Presbyterian Bill Tammeus appeared to accuse Pope Francis of "intentionally offering a poke in the eye to people outside your faith tradition."

He asks if Pope Francis is "saying that I, as a Presbyterian, cannot follow Jesus outside of Catholicism? That's what he appears to be claiming, and I think it's a dicey position to highlight so early in his papacy."

Did Pope Francis "intentionally" poke Protestants in the eye? Did he say that Presbyterians cannot follow Jesus?

Or is Tammeus misreading the pope?

Here's the story . . .


Getting Started on the Wrong Foot

Tammeus begins:

Ever since the start of the Protestant Reformation nearly 500 years ago, Protestants have been understandably dismissive of the idea that the Roman Catholic church is the only true Christian church.

I hope that Tammeus realizes that this is not what the Catholic Church claims. That's too simplistic (see below).

And yet the leaders of the Catholic church have made that claim persistently over time in various ways.

Oops. Maybe not. Well, I certainly hope he at least understands that this is not the way the Magisterium articulates the issue.

The [way leaders of the Catholic Church have made that claim] that stirred up the most resentment under Pope John Paul II was contained in Dominus Iesus, issued in August 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI.

The declaration said churches outside the Catholic church "are not Churches in the proper sense."


Mr. Tammeus: It is my great pleasure to inform you that your concerns are to a substantial degree misplaced.


What the Catholic Church Actually Teaches

The Catholic Church does not teach that "the Roman Catholic church is the only true Christian church."

First, the term "Roman Catholic church" refers to the Latin Church that exists within the Catholic Church. The various Eastern Catholics (Chaldeans, Maronites, Melkites, etc.) are all Catholics--in the fullest sense--but they aren't Roman Catholics.

Second, the Catholic Church does not claim that it is "the only true Christian church."

It acknowledges that every particular church, headed by a validly ordained bishop, is a Christian church, whether it is Catholic or not. This is why the Catholic Church refers to Eastern Orthodox churches, and other Eastern non-Catholic churches, as churches. They are!

Dominus Iesus, in the very same paragraph that you quoted, says:

The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches.

Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church [Dominus Iesus 18].

These Eastern churches may not be the one true Church on a universal level, but they are true, particular (local) churches. (We will deal with the question of whether the Catholic Church regards itself as the "one true Church" in a future blog post.)


What About Protestants?

The document goes on to say:

On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church.

It is, regrettably, true that the Presbyterian tradition to which Mr. Tammeus belongs has not preserved the sacrament of holy orders. Indeed, it does not believe that holy orders is a sacrament. And so it does not have a valid episcopate the way that Eastern non-Catholic churches do.

Consequently, Christian communities of this sort "are not churches in the proper sense," however Dominus Iesus immediately goes on to stress that their members are incorporated in Christ and in "a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church."

This is a far cry from declaring that "churches outside the Catholic church 'are not Churches in the proper sense.'"

Mr. Tammeus continues:

This is not the stuff of which good ecumenical relations are born . . .

True, saying that would not be good for ecumenical relations.

Neither is misrepresenting what your partner in dialogue actually says.

. . . though I know some Catholics would say this is Truth with a capital T and ecumenical relations are essentially theological froufrou.

Perhaps, but Pope Francis is not one of them.

Which brings us to Pope Francis . . .


Pope Francis Said Whaat?

Mr. Tammeus eases us into the subject of Pope Francis by saying . . .

Still, in a world so radically divided religiously, I wonder about the wisdom of intentionally offering a poke in the eye to people outside your faith tradition.

Which is why I was a bit surprised and disappointed to hear Pope Francis recently quoting Pope Paul VI when Francis spoke to and about women religious. Here's the quote: "It's an absurd dichotomy to think one can live with Jesus, but without the church, to follow Jesus outside the church, to love Jesus and not the church."


Once again, Mr. Tammeus, I am pleased to inform you that your concerns are substantially misplaced.


"Just Me and Jesus"?

Pope Francis was talking to Catholic women religious about the importance of living their Christian faith in context of the Church and not having the idea that a "just me and Jesus" attitude is what Christ wants.

If that were the case, why would Jesus even have established a Church?

I know that, when I was a Protestant--a Presbyterian, even--I heard sermons stressing the need to resist a "just me and Jesus" idea, and for quite biblical reasons.

After all, the author of Hebrews tells us:

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near [Heb. 10:24-25].


Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you [Heb. 13:17].

And St. Paul tells us:

But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work [1 Thess. 5:12-13].

All of these tilt against the "just me and Jesus" attitude.

If these themes are stressed even in the Presbyterian community, how can you fault Pope Francis for stressing them in a Catholic context?



Tammeus continues:

I would be shocked to learn that [Pope] Paul's reference there was to all branches of Christianity and not just to the Catholic church.

Well, it only takes a few moments to find this out through the magic of the Internet.

The full text of Pope Francis's speech is here.

And the full text makes it clear that the quote comes from Evangelii Nuntiandi (see section 16).

I regard it a best practice to look up the original context of a statement and make sure I understand it before commenting on it in public, and I would warmly recommend this practice to Mr. Tammeus as well.

And, indeed, both Pope Francis and Pope Paul were making a general statement about the role of the Catholic Church in the life of the Catholic Christian and were not applying it to non-Catholic Christians.

This is evident from the fact that Pope Francis was talking to Catholic women religious.

And it is evident from the fact that Pope Paul was talking to Catholics about evangelization.

In neither case did the pope apply the principle to non-Catholics.


Why Is That Important?

This is important, because understanding who the audience of a text is an important part of understanding its context and thus its meaning.

If you suppose that the texts of the New Testament were written, not to first century Jews and gentiles, but directly to the people of our day, then you are going to misread them.

People today do not write, speak, or think the same way as people 2,000 years ago, and there is a necessary process of putting oneself in the mental shoes of a person 2,000 years ago if you want to understand the texts correctly.

This is a principle that I am sure Mr. Tammeus agrees with.

He therefore should apply it in this context.

If Pope Paul and Pope Francis are addressing Catholic audiences in these texts then one should ask the question, "How would a Catholic understand them?"

Would a Catholic understand references to "the Church" as referring to the Catholic Church?

Unless the context specifies otherwise, the answer is, "Of course."

Both popes thus should be understood to be speaking about the need of Catholics to live out their faith in context of the Catholic Church rather than adopting a "just me and Jesus" attitude.

Is that really objectionable?

Isn't that what you'd expect the leader of the Catholic Church to say?

How could he say otherwise?

Wouldn't that be a gross negligence of his pastoral duties as a Catholic leader?


So What About an Application to Protestants?

If Popes Paul and Francis were talking about the importance of living as a Catholic in a way that respects the Catholic Church, what does that say about Protestants?

Not a whole lot.

Their statements were not directed to Protestants. Neither were they about Protestants or how they should live.

In order to understand what the popes might say about Protestants, one needs to look to other texts of the Magisterium.

When one does that, one finds a recognition that Protestants are brothers in Christ, that there are real elements of grace in the lives of Protestants, that the Catholic Church has a sincere desire to dialogue with them, and that the Catholic Church also has a recognition that we are not fully united and that there are important things that, from a Catholic perspective, the Protestant community does not share.

Presumably, those in the Protestant community would say the same things about Catholics.

Otherwise, why is there a separation between us, in contradiction to the manifest will of Christ?

We each must believe that there are important differences between us and our understanding of the Christian faith and how it is to be lived--or such a separation could not be justified.

What is the cause for shock and offense here?

Isn't a better path to honestly recognize both our brotherhood and our differences and proceed from there?


Overly Personal?

I find it particularly difficult to explain Mr. Tammeus's next statement:

And if he [Pope Paul] really meant just the Catholic church [in Evangelii Nuntiandi], is Francis (through Paul) saying that I, as a Presbyterian, cannot follow Jesus outside of Catholicism? That's what he appears to be claiming, and I think it's a dicey position to highlight so early in his papacy.

It wasn't a position that he was highlighting, because he wasn't discussing it at all.

I am afraid that, here, I must disagree with Mr. Tammeus's premise.

Pope Francis is not remotely addressing the situation of Presbyterians. He's not engaging that subject at all.

This is quite clear form the context of his address, which is directed to Catholic women religious. He never mentions Presbyterians or those in the Protestant community at all.

I hate to say it, but I can only fathom such an application of his words as ignoring their context and taking them in an overly personal way that was clearly never intended.

Does Pope Francis think that Mr. Tammeus, without becoming Catholic, follows Jesus in a way fully in accord with our Lord's will? Of course not.

Does Pope Francis think that Mr. Tammeus, without becoming Catholic, follows Jesus in no way whatsover? Of course not.

But Pope Francis's statement was not addressing Mr. Tammeus's situation, and Mr. Tammeus should recognize this.


"Obliged to Explain Himself"

Mr. Tammeus then states:

Even if that's not exactly what he meant, he now will be obligated to explain himself more fully to the Protestant and Orthodox worlds, many members of which no doubt read the new pope's words to mean what I think they mean.

I find it hard to accept this statement as well. (Also, where did the sudden recognition of the Eastern Orthodox churches come from, given that they have been entirely overlooked by Mr. Tammeus thus far?)

While there can be situations in which a pope needs to further clarify his comments, there is also a need for a basic good will and fairness of mind in reading what he has said.

After all, St. Paul tells us:

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus [Phil. 2:3-5].

I think, at a minimum, that this means giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Therefore, when we encounter a statement that appears to strike us as offensive or targeted at us, we should stop a moment.

We should ask ourselves, "Could this statement be meant in another way? Is it really directed at me? Or does it mean something else?"

In other words: We shouldn't be hypersensitive and unreasonable in the way we take the statements of others--including the pope.

What do you think?


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